Thought Leaders//

Designer Kendra Scott: “Success Doesn’t Always Look the Way You Expect It To”

The CEO of Kendra Scott is proof that you don't need to go to business school to succeed in business.

My journey toward becoming a jewelry designer isn’t what you’d expect. For starters, I grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is home to farmers and factory workers — not fashion designers. I didn’t finish college. My first business was a failure. The 2009 Recession nearly wiped out everything I had. Yet despite it all, today I’m leading a jewelry brand valued at $1 billion, have been named EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year, and will soon be inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame. Not to mention I’m a wife and mother of 3 handsome boys.

I don’t say all this to brag. I say it to spread the message that success doesn’t always look the way you expect it to. In my opinion, the world doesn’t tell us that enough. 

Growing up in Kenosha was the greatest gift I didn’t know I needed. I was raised by a loving family who didn’t laugh at my dream of being a fashion designer. Instead, they taught me the first of many lessons I carry with me to this day: If you work hard, lead with passion, and treat others with kindness — you can do anything. 

By the time I was 19-years-old, I had left Wisconsin for Texas to open my first business, a hat shop.

Kendra poses at her hat shop in Texas. Photo courtesy of Kendra Scott

The goal was to provide comfortable hats to women undergoing chemotherapy. The idea was sparked by my stepfather Rob, who had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. The news of his diagnosis rocked my world, and I dropped out of college to be near him and my mother. He was so proud of my hat business and that I was using my passions to help others, so when I was forced to close my store five years later, it didn’t just feel like I’d failed in business. It felt like I’d failed my stepfather. But instead of wallowing in self-pity, I chose to keep moving forward. I would come to appreciate that failure as another great lesson, teaching me to have strength in the face of challenge. 

Kendra with her stepfather, Rob. Photo courtesy of Kendra Scott.

In 2002, I began designing jewelry. By 2008, Kendra Scott — my namesake jewelry brand — was growing faster than I could manage. I had a showroom in Dallas and NYC, partnerships with major department stores, and a steadily growing wholesale business. I was proud to have built my passion into a successful brand that could support my family. Then the recession hit, which took me (and countless others) by surprise. After depending on lines of credit to manage our recent growth, the bank called my loan, and the money it would take to pay it off would drain my business. The fear almost paralyzed me. I was about to lose everything I’d built, everything my family depended on. After going around to countless banks, getting denied everywhere I turned, I found the courage to walk through one more door. It was a local Texas bank. I sat across the table from the president — a woman — and saw her look at me not just as another loan number, but as a woman with passion and grit who would work hard to succeed. She gave me the loan. She kept my business alive.

Today, after eighteen years of business in the fashion industry, I am living the dream I never imagined would come true. But now I’m chasing another dream. I want to change the perception of what success and entrepreneurship looks like. I want to empower the next generation of women leaders to shatter the stereotypes that have governed the business world for too long. And I want to start right here, in my hometown of Austin, Texas.

Austin gave my business the wings to fly. This city gave a young entrepreneur like me a chance, despite the fact that I didn’t have the experience, capital, or a college degree. Austin is a city that believes in the impossible, and I saw that even more clearly when I began hiring UT interns to help our growing business. They each had diverse backgrounds and experiences, but the same desire to learn and prove themselves. The University of Texas promotes a forward-thinking, innovative mindset that has stimulated Austin’s incredible growth. And I knew they’d be the perfect partner to make my dream a reality.

Together with UT Austin, we are launching the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) Institute, beginning Spring 2020. This will be a unique take on the traditional leadership program – open to all majors, and specifically built to address the challenges women often face. Looking back on the roadblocks I worked so hard to overcome, I hope to use this program to equip women with the tools they need to succeed in their dream — whatever that dream may be.

It’s my goal to create a space where women are encouraged to speak with confidence, and to chase boldly after their passions. I want to show students that you don’t have to be in the business school to be in business. You can be a leader in whatever you do, and leave your mark in a powerful way. 

With the Kendra Scott WEL Institute, we will teach students not only to believe in the impossible, but how to make the impossible a reality. Leadership has many faces and voices. It is my mission to provide a platform for the voices that can change the world.

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